A “perfect storm” is what CNMI Department of Labor Secretary Vicky Benavente describes the issues currently besetting the CNMI as the islands attempt to understand the ramifications of new regulations for the CNMI-Only Nonresident Worker program and await what shape and form Public Law 115-218 ends up.
Signed just last week, P.L. 115-218 gave status to over a thousand people with humanitarian parole.
Add to that the Philippines’ removal from the H-2B program, and the local Labor chief didn’t hesitate to paint an uncertain picture of where the CNMI is headed for.
“When I mean perfect storm, it means everything is coming from all directions—Prevailing Wage [Survey], H-2B…the Philippines was removed from the list of eligible workers [under the H-2B program] and where do we get most of our construction workers, the Philippines. We’re right in the middle of recovery eight months after Yutu. We’re not ready to let go of construction workers,” she said in an interview with Saipan Tribune last Tuesday.
For starters, Benavente said the Interim Final Rule for the CW program—all 160 pages of it—could be a difficult read for some.
“We have been talking with the U.S. Department of Labor regarding other issues like the new Interim Final Rule. Using the IFR, there are four steps and local Labor is involved in Step 3. But we have a lot of questions on the IFR,” she said.
Benavente said CNMI Labor also has a lot of questions regarding the Prevailing Wage Survey component of the Interim Final Rule.
“We also have a Prevailing Wage Survey that just came out after the typhoon and how many companies actually responded and for how many positions? It’s really a very low number because if you have 35 construction companies and only 10 responded, your wages are going to be high. Instead of paying $10 an hour we will be paying $17 an hour,” she said.
Benavente said she spoke with many of the affected companies and they told her they either would reduce work hours or reduce manpower because of the new CW program and its requirements.
“Some even said they will close shop and go somewhere else that is business-friendlier. These are retail stores, mom-and-pop stores, and heavy equipment renters… the average businessmen who said they just can’t afford the higher wages. This is sad because these small businesses are the backbone of our economy.”
Benavente has appealed to U.S. Labor to postpone the PWS requirement in the CW program but was rebuffed.
“I was told to ‘follow the law,’” she told Saipan Tribune.
Ultimately, the CNMI’s problems are not actually grounded on the issue of immigration but rather on the economy and how the Commonwealth would rebound following Yutu, according to Benavente.
“A lot of things are happening that we don’t have too much control…what we’re talking about is not so much the issue of immigration, but the issue on the economy, our tourism industry specifically, which is very dependent on [foreign] workers…” she said while stressing that the CNMI would always be dependent on foreign workers.
“We don’t have enough U.S. citizens for our labor needs—more than 37,000-39,000 job openings and only how many U.S. citizens available to fill those jobs. [We only have] a drop in the bucket and not enough,” Benavente added.
With regards to the H-2B program and how the CNMI has been deprived of Philippine construction workers, Benavente said she actually asked her federal partners to at least exempt the CNMI from certain provisions of the program.
“We still have 500 homes still not repaired due to lack of construction workers,” she said, adding that due to the H-2B ban on Filipino workers, some have actually gone underground and are charging $20/hour and this translates to lost taxes and further losses to the government.